Defining non-sense: Lewis Carroll and the agony of the Hunting of the Snark


In 1874 Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll published his most enigmatic work of non-sense “the Hunting of the Snark”. It was derided almost immediately by critics and yet it still holds a curious fascination to all who read it from curious bystanders to ivory tower scholars. People (devotee’s and critics) approach “Snark” from all sides in an attempt to penetrate its meaning, if indeed there is any and despite Carroll’s own warning to such critical analysis in Alice’s adventures Under Ground

“There’s a porpoise close behind me and it’s treading on my tail”.

   Carroll, for his part was ambiguous as to what “Snark” was supposed to mean, saying in one letter that people will assign meanings to everything so everything has a meaning and he is happy enough to accept what meaning others give it. His desire to keep the meaning veiled (if there was a meaning to begin with, which one is lead to believe there must have been, if for no other reason than the curious cohesion of his otherwise non-sense narrative) is reinforced in his definition of a Snark, which appeared on the end papers of his published addition and illustrated by Henry Holiday. “A Snark…Is a Boojum” Yet a Boojum is only a particularly nasty sort of Snark. This sort of definition reflects a noumenon quality, or as Kant phrased it “Ding an Sich” or “Thing in Itself”. In other words the nature of the thing is defined only by the things nature independent of our perceptions. To further reflect the ambiguous nature of the Snark Carroll provides a series of attributes by which it can be recognized, most of them designed only to create the circular logic which Carroll was so fond of. But one attribute gives some insight and is worth consideration. It is said that the Snark has the flavor of the Will-o-the-wisp. What does this mean?

   A will of the Wisp is a phantom light often said to lure travelers deeper into swamps or forests. In folklore it is considered a bad portent. A wisp was a bundle of sticks used as a torch while Will was a proper name, possibly originating (as folklorist Katherine Mary Briggs suggests) in the Shropshire legend of Will the Blacksmith who was cursed to wander to the land accounting to his wickedness. The name Will in this folkloric tradition is synonymous with Jack made prominent in the many “Jack” tales including “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Jack the Giant Killer” and the Jack-O-Lantern, which is a sort of counterpoint to the Will-o-the-wisp. In this light we begin to see the Will-o-the-wisp as a phantom, or figment which lures travelers and adventurers deeper into darkness. The light it emits being a tool of darkness. Symbolically light means wisdom and darkness is Carroll’s brand of peculiar, circular non-sense. Once again, Carroll uses circular logic to bring the reader back to the start never aware that he had been led by a carefully crafted set of narrative strings.

Charting the course through non-sense

   One of the more enigmatic, although less well known features of the Snark epic is Carroll’s use of map’s or to be precise, one very particular and highly peculiar map which depicts the oceans without any land, navigation lines or scale to clutter things. Of course such a map would be useless in searching for anything other than a Snark or perhaps a Boojum in a world governed by non-sense yet it speaks volumes about the nature of Carroll’s mastery of the genre of non-sense literature and perhaps gives a valuable insight into the mind of Lewis Carroll.


He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”

So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank: 
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”


Invisible geographies


   The latter part of the 19th century represented the apogee of the British empire, when some portion of every continent on earth was painted red (red being the color used by map makers to depict land belonging to Great Britain). Adventure stories were growing in popularity, and would reach their zenith under the pen of Rudyard Kipling. Britain was an empire and empires are defined and measured by maps. Yet in “Snark” we discover a band of intrepid adventurers setting out with the aid of a map that depicts only empty space. 

   In the early phase of exploration empty spaces were labeled with strange sea creatures and legends such as “here there be dragons” or “terra incognita”. Unknown lands represented both a challenge to empire and a lure to explorers. By 1874 the only empty spaces on maps could be found at the North Pole. By 1906 even these spaces would be charted so what was the meaning of the blank map which the Bellman carried on the search for the elusive Snark? Could Dodgson have been making a statement about identity on a national scale the way he tried to explore personal identity in the Caterpillars asking Alice “Who are you”?

   Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski used the phrase “The map is not the territory” to suggest his view that an abstraction (such as map) derived from something real (such as the world) is not the thing itself. This makes sense when one considers the maps most admired by collectors, those which were presented to nobility to show the new lands of their empire depended on visual appeal rather than navigational accuracy. In this case the map could be so complex, having included images, thoughts, ideas and other abstractions about what the land depicted means in terms of cultural identity that the source of the depiction, the real land becomes meaningless. This was very true when early colonists discovered, much to their amazement their new homes were far different from what the early maps led them to believe.

   Maps, in this sense represent one way of believing in the world, or putting order to what was chaos (or non-sense). Order, chaos and Identity are themes which Dodgson explored deeply in his writing, either deliberately or accidentally to great effect, whether it was Alice being asked who she is or the blank map, a whole world of terra incognita in the Hunting of the Snark.

   If we accept the idea that the blank map was meant as a means to consider identity then we must ask what does the nothing space actually mean. Jorge Louis Borges in his story “On the exactitude of Science” describes the uselessness of a perfectly accurate map, a map that would be on first glance the exact opposite of the blank Snark map. He says in his own eloquent way…

“They drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography saw the vast Map to be Useless and permitted it to decay and fray under the Sun and winters.” 

   Such a map would not have any voids simply because any void would be filled with some exact representation of the kingdom, be it a tree, a lake, a dirt path or a falling leaf. There would be no terra incognita and thus no desire to explore the unexplored. The map here becomes a mere copy of the real world, or a mirror reflection by which a national identity can be examined just as Alice learned to examine her own identity through another kind of reflection in “Through the Looking Glass”.  The “Snark” map, by its absence of any practical navigational attributes becomes the perfect map for an imaginative journey. John Locke likened the child to a Tabula Rosa, a blanks slate, echoing L’Estrange’s statement that children are but blank paper. Both Locke and L’Estrange considered this blank slate state of childhood as a period requiring intellectual guidance., to them, and to many other’s who took on education and childhood reform during the enlightenment the blank slate must be filled.  This idea had largely changed by the time Carroll was writing “Snark”. Imagination was to be encouraged and childhood innocence was to be celebrated. One dimension, though certainly not the whole dimension of Carroll’s non-sense literature was a direct challenge to established rules of logic governing childhood. For Carroll, the Tabula Rosa of the child’s imagination was a place of wonder and enchantment that needed only proper encouragement.

    Carroll would return to the idea of maps as identity a few years later in “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded”, published in 1893. In it he describes a fictional map whose scale was 1:1. This is same sort of map Borges is talking about in “On the exactitude of Science“. Bruno notices the practical difficulties of such a map when he states “We now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” The map with a scale of 1:1 became only a copy of a single moment in the life of the national and cultural identity it was meant to symbolically represent. It is the difference between the thing and the thing represented, or the self and idea of the self as we ourselves define it and as others define us, which is again an exploration of the concept of noumenon. By understanding this we unlock the mystery of “the Hunting of Snark’s” elusive meaning, which was never any meaning at all. That is to say the meaning was not to mean anything and therefore did in fact have meaning. The Snark hunt was quest by which the reader would be led through a circular world and back to the beginning. The map was not a chart designed to provide navigation points but a call to action. It was the voice of the unknown, the imaginative, speaking through the narrative. It was the reflection by which we look at the world, having no substance beyond that which we perceive in its surface. That such a meaning can be gleaned from a story that really has no meaning is a testimony to the genius of Lewis Carroll.  Contrary to popular opinion, “The Hunting of the Snark” was the 19th century’s master stroke of non-sense literature and by it Carroll’s own truth is proven out. That a purpose all too often treads on the tale.


Select bibliography for further reading

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll, edited by Martin Gardner

The Annotated “Thu Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll edited Martin Gardner

Sylvie and Bruno Concluded by Lewis Carroll

Aesops Fabled compiled and translated by Roger L’Estrange

The expression “the map is not the territory” first appeared in print in a paper that Alfred Korzybski gave at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1931

British folktales and legends by Katherine Mary Briggs

On the exactitude of Science by Jorge Louis Borges

The Natural History of Make-believe by John Goldthwaite. It was Goldthwaite who coined the term all-sense



Thoughts for further inquiry

In what ways do children’s literature and in particular the Hunting of the Snark or Alice address the question of identity either personal or national?

Children’s Literature often deals with imagined geographies. In what ways does imagined geography reflect the geography of the real world?

In what ways does Children’s Literature use the concept of blank space?

Consider the differences between non-sense, No sense and all-sense. In brief non-sense is a work designed to carefully conceal the highly complex orchestrated narrative behind a seemingly illogical structure. It uses playful tricks of language and circular logic to accomplish this. Non-sense plays the jester to the court of logic, making mock out of sense in order to reflect absurdities. This is quite contrary to No sense, which is a work that is meaningless and has no purpose other than to convey a moment’s entertainment. It is the doggerel of literature found in 19th century Penny Dreadful’s or 20th century Trashy romance novels. The All-sense however, is something altogether different. All-sense rarely occurs, and when it does it is most often by accident, which is usually the way of profound ideas. Most frequently, all-sense appears in fairy tales, some children’s literature, certain strains of myth and many religious stories. Through all-sense the reader or listener is transformed. Non-sense is at its best a call to action whereas all-sense is a thunderbolt of life changing enlightenment.   To better understand all sense, imagine this setting. A child listening to a story that he or she loses “all sense” of time and place. That moment of being separated from cognitive reality is the not about losing ones sense of surroundings but entering into a higher state of cognition through the vehicle of the story. All sense brings you into it’s space where you undergo a transformation unlike an epiphany which is a flash of insight that comes from without and usually implies a single momentary revelation pertinent to a single problem.

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7 Responses to Defining non-sense: Lewis Carroll and the agony of the Hunting of the Snark

  1. goetzkluge says:

    As for thoughts for further enquiry: Can Henry Holiday’s illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” help to learn more about the Snark?

    • Candlewycke says:

      Not quite sure what you mean. Do you suggest that Henry Holiday and Carroll were in some sort of symbolic collusion or that Holiday took Carroll’s writing and added his own symbolism?

      • goetzkluge says:

        As far as I know, among the illustrators of Carroll, Holiday probably was the one with whom Carroll could collaborate in the most harmonious way. I assume, that Holiday paralleled Carroll’s textual allusions with his own pictorial allusions, however, without distorting the meaning (or range of meanings) which Carroll may have given to his poem. Of course, this is as much speculation as my reckoning regarding Thomas Cranmer & the Baker (see below).

  2. goetzkluge says:

    I noticed, that religion is an issue in this blog. I think that it is an issue in Lewis Carroll’s and Henry Holiday’s Snark ballad too. And to the Reverend Dodgson (aka Carroll), the 39 Articles were of special interest: he refused to subscribe to some of them. It started with Thomas Cranmer’s 42 articles. “Forgetting” them, didn’t save Cranmers life. He got burned at the stake. In Carroll’s poem there is a “Baker” with four “burned” nicknames, who forgot his 42 boxes as well:

    • Candlewycke says:

      I believe you are correct. I think Dodgson was himself religious, He might today be termed a spiritual Christian but no doubt he had some issues with religiosity, and there is a difference between religion and religiosity. A commitment to faith and a belief in the underlying dogma is religion, a reliance on ordinances and commentary such as the 39 articles is religiosity. He is in many ways a special case because while he refused to subscribe to many of the articles, he never did anything to suggest in personal life, private writings, public persona or public writings that he was not committed in a very personal way to faith.

      You make a good point about the baker Cranmer connection, though this could be only coincidence. Dodgson filled so much of his writing with hidden meaning that it is easy to look for hidden meaning in every sentence when sometimes nonsense is just that nonsense. Though again, it is a point worth considering.

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